Howdy everyone! How’s your isolation going? Today was the first day of having my daughter home, figuring out some homeschooling/unschooling strategies for the upcoming weeks. We’re taking a break, so let’s talk about 2016 in indie RPGs.
This was the first year I couldn’t track everything coming out. Kickstarter became the primary funding/marketing venue for gaming, at least in my world. I stopped neurotically tracking every update to every backed project, which means I stopped paying as much attention to chitchat out of designers. All but one, that is.
If you’re following this series or want to go backward from here, the 2015 edition is here.
Blades in the Dark
The flagship of the Forged in the Dark design platform.
2016: Blades in the Dark/Forged in the Dark
Honestly, I had a hard time deciding what year to plop John Harper’s Blades in the Dark. I backed it on Kickstarter in 2014 and didn’t receive the final book until 2017, but it was 2016 when I started playing from drafts released to backers. I never play games from playtest drafts, but even early looks at Blades showed me there was something interesting there.
The short pitch, in case you’ve somehow you’ve never heard of it: players play gang members in a spooky steampunk city. The focus is on the shared enterprise of growing the gang, with trope-enforcing playbooks and cinematic caper rules supporting that. The system itself feels like a mashup of Apocalypse World and Burning Wheel, a trindie game more on the indie side of things.
I’ve written a lot about various Forged in the Dark games over the years. I’ve played Blades, the sci-fi version Scum and Villainy that started as a stretch goal and become a freestanding book from Evil Hat, and most recently Band of Blades.
Is Forged in the Dark the next big design platform? There are certainly a lot of adaptations out there now! A few that jump out at me: Hack the Planet, Beam Saber (on Kickstarter right now!), Copperhead County, A Nocturne, and Brinkwood. This isn’t even close to comprehensive, just a quick list of what’s sitting on my hard drive. If you like playbooks, explicit negotiation with the GM about your effort’s fictional positioning and desired effect, a party-focused orientation, and fun mini-games that handle downtime and your party’s shared enterprise (your gang, your ship, your family, etc.), it’s time to get into a Forged in the Dark game. The original is a safe place to start.
This infamously ultra-luxe production from Monte Cook Games was first funded on Kickstarter this year. It’s raised a lot of questions! Does a premium product deliver a premium experience? Is it wildly overpriced or is the rest of the market wildly underpriced? Is a game this big really “indie?”
This is my first runner-up because a very generous patron backed the reprint of this game for me the following year, after the initial release produced a lot of hype and noise and conversation. In a very real way, the Indie Game Reading Club blog would not exist without it. I started the deep dive into the Black Cube mid-2019, and we played the game itself both at the table and online, with mixed results. My Invisible Sun wrapup is here, with links to the rest of the series.
I had my first dose of actual play the year before Brendan Conway’s Masks came out, but I’ll list it here. Masks is a PbtA teen superheroes game, and it does superhero gaming exactly the way I want: focused on interpersonal melodrama, not the physics of interacting superpowers. I’ve put my time in on the Champions and GURPS style supers, I’ve played Brave New World, I mean…I’ve played a lot of superhero games. Which is funny because I’m not really a fan of the genre. But Masks gets me. Highest recommendation, even if you feel iffy about playing teenagers. The teen part of the game is more about their relationship with adults, rather than exploring their emerging personalities like in Monsterhearts.
Space Wurm vs Moonicorn
This dose of sci-fantasy psychedelia flew under my radar because of the name, but playing it blew my mind. It’s a layer that sits atop Dungeon World, and maintains that D&D-ish “fantasy party” vibe to a point, but mostly it’s about the extensive prep that goes into creating the world. SWvM is ostensibly built as a pseudo-competitive RPG – Space Wurm is trying to take over the galaxy, and Moonicorn is trying to get out from under the galaxy’s oppression – but really the good stuff is in the absolutely gonzo interplay of setting weirdness, playbook weirdness, and big scene-chewing melodrama. The game also comes with a self-contained one-shot version, with every move in the game explicitly on the playbooks. No common moves! It’s tricky for the GM to run because of that, but it’s a neat format.
I wrote a lot about SWvM back when Google Plus was my platform. I haven’t gotten everything tagged but here’s a good intro from my first session.
This Year Zero Engine sci-fi ship-crew game has an amazing setting, truly: generation ships head off to settle a far-off world, but while in transit instantaneous gateway travel is discovered, wars are fought over the gates, societies are trapped behind the destroyed gates and fall and rise over the next several thousand years, and then those generation ships arrive. It’s a very hot mix of Arabian Nights and Firefly and cyberpunk. And the production values are jaw-dropping. And I love the Year Zero Engine! But Coriolis was the first time I felt disappointed in the Year Zero Engine.
In doing something “different” for Coriolis, Free League messed with its dice mechanisms, introduced a “darkness point” economy that didn’t work, and broke action scenes into discrete “action points” that I found exhausting to engage with. I think we ran three or four sessions of this and ultimately felt disappointed in the result. Coriolis makes this list because it was the first time I realized I need to not fall in love with Year Zero Engine games sight-unseen.